Archive for the 'General' Category


The sun is rising in the East

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

Never mind the crocodile: the dragon is now the power in Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe is probably not a man much amused by historical irony. That’s a shame because if he was he might appreciate the various mirror images between his enforced retirement and the downfall of the Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal in 1757. The Nawab – at 24, nearly seven decades younger than Mugabe – was deposed by the East India Company after it bribed his commander with the offer of the crown provided he betray his prince at the Battle of Plassey, which he duly did. That action laid the foundation stone of the British Empire in India. Mugabe, by contrast, led Zimbabwe into independence and in so doing, set the sun on the last large piece of territory in the Empire.

However, what goes around, comes around. 37 years after closing the door on one empire, his downfall might well mark the point at which another finally broke cover.

The British press have naturally been fairly quiet on this point. Mugabe has for years been a comedy villain for them (comedy being easier when it’s 5000 miles away) and Mugabe was happy to keep revisiting alleged British interference for domestic purposes. It’s all refighting imaginary battles from a vanished world order – as is the question of Zimbabwe’s status in the Commonwealth: who cares?

These echoes of the past have distracted from the actions of the present. The most telling feature of the Zimbabwe coup was that it was clearly green-lit by China. As in Bengal 260 years ago, the subordinate assumed the crown on the overthrow of the former leader backed by the shift in allegiance of the army and undoubtedly with the approval if not outright connivance of the great power.* Gen Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean army, was in China only a week before the coup. It’s inconceivable that he didn’t discuss it while there, not least because it’s equally inconceivable that it would have gone ahead had China been opposed.

The simple reason why China has an interest is money. China is Zimbabwe’s biggest foreign investor and its key supplier of military equipment. It has an interest in the political stability and economic welfare of the country (note – that means it doesn’t have an interest in democracy). Neither of these were being served by Mugabe. Can we know for certain that it wasn’t a purely domestic matter? No, and to be fair, the timing may have been forced given what looked like an incipient purge from the Mugabes of their opponents but all the same, the meshing of interests is clear.

Nor is Chinese investment limited to just Zimbabwe. In 2015, China had 107 companies operating in Zimbabwe, which meant it didn’t even make it into the ten most active trade partnerships (Nigeria, with 334, was top, followed by South Africa on 229 and Zambia on 213). Overall, China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. It’s also a key supplier of low-interest finance for infrastructure investment. With money comes power, as Britain well knew.

And the flip side is that the trade and investment is at a level which forces China to take an interest in the domestic stability of these countries. The goods it’s buying – raw materials, above all – are essential to its economy. Africa is the second-largest regional supplier of oil to China, after the Middle East, for example. As with all great global trading powers, particularly those with large and growing overseas investments, core national interests demand open and reliable sea lanes, reliable partner regimes and overseas military bases to protect not only its economic interests but also its people (there are now more than a million Chinese in Africa). It is not that China is actively seeking a scramble for Africa – on the contrary, it’s been remarkably tentative about using its power – it’s that the outcome is an almost inevitable consequence of having grown as it has.

The true mark of a superpower is the ability to act contrary to the world’s norms, with impunity, providing that the action does not cross the essential national interests of another superpower. The US and Soviet Union used to sponsor regime change and before them, the European powers did likewise when they didn’t take a more direct interest. Nawab Siraj wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last to suffer at the hand of proxies.

Why does this matter now? Because it’s symptomatic of the West’s weakness and lack of strategic capability. The foreign policy of the US is a scream in a vacuum and that of the European powers is introspective and ineffective. While Britain struggles through Brexit with the hope of global trade deals, China simply gets on with it. But then China has the financial and diplomatic muscle to be able to build its new order.

David Herdson

* There are obviously some differences too: Zimbabwe’s transfer of power was bloodless, including – so far – Mugabe himself; also, the army was a more direct actor this time. All the same, the parallels are striking.


Marf on the dramatic events in Harare

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

A coup or not a coup?

Dr Julia Gallagher, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, said:

“This has all the hallmarks of a military coup. It looks like this is direct consequence of President Mugabe’s sacking of his Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week. Mnangagwa is an unpopular figure, widely associated with brutal repressions in Matabeland in the 1980s, and with election violence more recently. However, he is supported by Zimbabwe’s military, who want him to succeed Mugabe.”

Mike Smithson


From Core TV – focus on PB, Brexit, the “Democrats”, the Tory leadership and more

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

No David Herdson with his usual Saturday morning post this morning but instead this TV feature on PB and many of the issues we’ve been discussing on the site over the past few weeks.

This interview, by Rob Double, was recorded yesterday afternoon for Core TV the new online news and politics channel.

My views and assessments won’t be unfamiliar to regular PBers.

Mike Smithson


It’s (Third) Party Time!!

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Stodge looks back to the 80s to reflect on today’s developments

I joined the Liberal Party in 1980 and by January 1982 was an activist in south-east London and I remember going out knocking on doors in the bleak midwinter and coming back astonished at the collapse of the Conservative vote in an area which had routinely voted 65-70% Conservative at local elections.

Perhaps the house owners were taking pity on me – the passage of time may make it seem more than it was – but the number of times I was told it was time to get rid of “that bloody woman” and they would vote against the Conservatives to make it happen was too many to be mere coincidence.

The only person who was getting a more positive response was my canvassing colleague, a middle aged former bank worker who had never been in a political party but had joined the SDP in March 1981. Had he known what he was letting himself in for, I wondered if he would have changed his mind but he was keen and enthusiastic and could communicate with the disillusioned Conservatives in a way I never could.

It’s often forgotten the SDP attracted Conservatives as well as Labour support but two thirds of those who joined had never belonged to a political party.

Then came the Falklands War and it’s not often appreciated that not only did it save Margaret Thatcher and ensure her 1983 landslide but it also saved Labour by removing the very real threat of the Alliance parties challenging them for second place in seats and votes. With that threat removed, the road to the Blair landslide of 1997 was open.

History rarely repeats itself but those who advocate a new or third party are constantly reminded of the failure of the SDP as a salutary lesson, an inevitability that any new force will be broken on the rocks of the duopoly and FPTP and with more than 80% voting either Conservative or Labour in June that seems a real and valid point but nearly 80% voted for the two main parties in 1979 and that didn’t stop the SDP’s creation.

What then does the new party need to survive and succeed?


All politicians need it and some have it in large quantities but no one has it for ever. The new party needs a high-profile defection, an unexpected endorsement and a by-election in the right place to establish its credentials.


The new party needs high-profile supporters such as a George Osborne or a David Miliband. The last attempt at a breakaway party, UKIP, owed its success to the media presence of Nigel Farage and the good fortune of David Cameron who in winning his own majority in 2015 gave UKIP the referendum it always wanted and the chance to achieve its dream.


UKIP worked because everyone knew what it stood for – a referendum on UK membership of the European Union in which UKIP would campaign for a vote to Leave.

There were UKIP policies on a range of other issues but no one was interested.

A new party needs to have a unique selling point (USP) – something which differentiates it from other parties. UKIP had theirs – the Liberal Democrats did well when being opposed to intervention in Iraq. For parties aspiring to Government, it’s more complex and complicated.

The SDP had policies on everything and behaved as though they were going to be a governing party. Realistically, the Alliance’s best hope was to gain enough seats to create a Hung Parliament and negotiate with either the Conservative or Labour parties (essentially what happened in 2010).

The new party will face a similar dilemma and unless it can provoke a large scale schism in either the Conservative or Labour parties (50 MPs from each side would do it) it’s going to face an uphill battle to get organised and even if it has funding, to get its message heard once the initial euphoria has died away.

Who’s In?

Rather like a female Doctor Who, there will be some novelty value to a new political force and especially if it gets a few defections to establish itself as a presence at Westminster and in some local Councils.

Will it be a place where Blairites, Orange Book Liberals and Liberal Conservatives can coalesce and agree a common platform? It’s often called the “soggy centre” or the “marshy middle ground” but there’s plenty of potential for agreement on Brexit and perhaps other areas.

The Others:

How will a new party interact with the others in the political arena? So much depends on where its “origins” are. The SDP was predominantly an ex-Labour party at Westminster and it was always my experience that Labour activists were incredibly hostile toward the SDP while they treated Liberals like me with civility and respect while Conservatives tended to be fairly indifferent.

The schism within Labour (of which current Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable was a part) caused bad blood for decades.

In the end, ironically, the SDP post-merger diaspora found its way into and took over both the Labour and Conservative parties and both Blair and Cameron can be recognisably seen as less the scions of Thatcher but more the children of Doctor Death.

Any new party will rapidly need to establish a modus vivendi with the Liberal Democrats either through an electoral pact or common platform.

The Party I joined in 1980 was broken by the Coalition – nearly three quarters of the current Liberal Democrat membership joined AFTER 2015 so you could argue there’s already a new party out there (as there is a new Labour Party as well).


Kylie Minogue once opined “I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky” and a new party is going to need all the luck going to get off the ground and be successful.

As a minimum, it needs money, high profile figures and a USP to set it apart from the others. It can’t simply be a collection of political failures but has to be seen to be a party for younger people and for those not previously interested in politics.

It will enjoy an initial honeymoon but that will fade and the serious graft of establishing local identity and presence will begin. I would advocate concentrating on areas of membership strength and get local council candidates (or defectors) to set up organisations and start thinking about prospective candidates.

Kylie also said “It’s Never Too Late, We’ve Still Got Time” but the truth is any new party will need every second between now and a 2022 election to get itself moving. Britain isn’t France and the example of Macron won’t work over here.



Reports of 20 dead after what appears to be terrorist incident at Manchester concert

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017


The Westminster attacks: It’ll be some time before we get the full picture

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

We do know that a policemen was killed bringing current death toll to 2


Donald Trump, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt feature in the big stories overnight

Sunday, January 15th, 2017


Professor Anthony King, one of Britain’s leading psephologists, dies at the age of 82

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Prof Anthony King being awarded, alongside Prof Ivor Crewe, the 2014 Practical Politics Book of the Year award

Professor Anthony King, one of Britain’s leading political scientists, has died at the age of 82. He’s perhaps best known for his appearances on election results programmes and his lucid analysis. From 1983 – 2005, he was BBC TV analyst on General Election nights. Also, every month for many years, he was the main commentator on political opinion polls for The Daily Telegraph.

He wrote many books on politics and was co-editor of the Britain at the Polls series of essays and, in 2008, The British Constitution.

King was co-author with David Butler of the Nuffield College election studies for the 1964 and 1966 and wrote Britain Says Yes: the 1975 Referendum on the Common Market.

Many of his later works were co-authored with his then University of Essex colleague, Prof Ivor Crewe.

I met him once at an Oxford dinner shortly after I had founded PB in 2004 and we talked about the creation of the site. He was a great communicator with a wonderful ability to make politics relevant to audiences other than political geeks.

He’ll be missed.

Mike Smithson